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Paul Krugman on interest rates and gold: “Mr. Magoo, you’ve done it again”

September 10, 2011 Leave a comment

"ROAD HOG!!"

Once again, Paul Krugman manages to stumble Mr. Magoo-like to his analytical destination through a series of comical errors.

Krugman’s argument on gold and deflation is actually an argument on gold and depressions. Krugman begins by explaining that rising gold price has been popularly linked to the prospect of inflation created by the monetary policies of the Federal Reserve Bank. He has ignored this argument, because he thinks Fed policy is far too restrictive to create inflation — deflation is his worry. He has, in fact, brushed rising gold prices aside as something caused by gold-bugs and the like — until now.

Now, he thinks, he can explain why rising gold price may actually be an expected outcome of a deflation, not inflation. I know Krugman’s argument here is flawed, but coincidentally on the right side of the relation: rising gold price implies the economy is experiencing a depression but this real contraction of economic activity does not necessarily lead to a general fall of prices — the deflation Krugman thinks he can explain. So, I want to examine his argument to locate the fallacy in it.

In the model Krugman is using, gold is an ordinary commodity like oil or coal; i.e., without any significant monetary properties. Gold is used primarily for its industrial applications:

Imagine that there’s a fixed stock of gold available right now, and that over time this stock gradually disappears into real-world uses like dentistry. (Yes, gold gets mined, and there’s a more or less perpetual demand for gold that just sits there; never mind for now).

At this point, we need to make explicit what Krugman wants to dismiss in the set up of his argument: First, he is dismissing what is undeniably the most important use of gold: its use as money, as measure of value and as standard of prices. The use of gold as a way to store value — as gold “that just sits there” — does not consume the gold; it simply sits in a bank vault or some other storage facility and is rarely if ever moved, except to be transferred to the ownership of another person. What makes gold ideal for this is that it has a shelf-life that is unlimited — because it does not corrode or otherwise decompose. Even as standard of price gold does not necessarily get consumed. If it is used as currency it may be eroded during the course of circulation. But if it is not directly used as currency, this is not true — again, it simply sits in a bank vault until it is exchanged for paper tokens of itself.

Second, Krugman wants us to ignore the fact that the existing stock of gold is constantly being added to by production of new gold from sources deep in the earth. Most of this new gold also does not enter into production, but is used for its principal purpose as money — as a store of value (savings). Production of gold has to be important in any explanation because of a unique characteristic this gold production has: the production of gold does not appear to be significantly affected by the laws of supply and demand. While the price of gold may rise or fall, the amount of gold produced manages to remain in a very narrow band; rarely, if ever falling out of this narrow limit — e.g. between 2001 and 2010 production ranged between 2400 to 2650 tons per year, while prices quadrupled. As a commodity, gold behaves very curiously in a non-commodity fashion

These two objections are enough to raise serious questions about Paul’s entire model, but, for the moment, we will set them aside and continue to examine Paul’s argument:

The rate at which gold disappears into teeth — the flow demand for gold, in tons per year — depends on its real price

We have a fixed stock of gold that is gradually being consumed by various uses in production. Krugman argues that the rate this stock of gold is consumed will depend on its “real” price. What is the “real” price of gold, and how does this differ from the nominal currency price of gold? Krugman does not tell me. He simply throws the term out there and expects me to figure it out for myself. Since, I can only price gold in an existing currency, I assume by “real” price, Krugman means its currency, e.g. dollar, price. We will see why my assumption is not be correct — gold, it turns out, does not have a price, “real” or otherwise. For now, let’s continue:

Crucially, at least for tractability, there is a “choke price” — a price at which flow demand goes to zero. As we’ll see next, this price helps tie down the price path.

Krugman is arguing there is a price at which the “flow demand” (the money demand for a good over time) for gold in the market goes to zero. He slips this assumption into his argument without discussing it, but I am forced to wonder how he arrives at this statement. Certainly, for use as an ordinary commodity, as a commodity used in industrial processes, we can assume there is a point at which the price of gold might become prohibitive. But, as money — as store of value, or as the standard of prices — is there any evidence that gold has a price point at which demand for its goes to zero? Well, no and yes. One of the paradoxes of gold is that demand tends to increase along with the price. Here is just one example taken from a gold-bug (he even calls himself “Mr. Gold”) doing research on China’s demand for gold:

When at the beginning of this century I studied the elasticity of gold demand to incomes, I was stunned by how steep the demand curve was in China.  PRC gold demand was unlike in any other country because, precisely, it was upward sloping – the more expensive the gold, the more the Chinese bought of it.  The trend has not changed since then…

Note, how this gold-bug asserts the demand curve for gold is “unlike in any other country because, precisely, it was upward sloping.” This is hardly true, as we can see at least in the anecdotal evidence with demand for gold in the United States — the hysteria for gold increases as the price of the metal increases here as well. This pattern of behavior is not unusual if we assume gold is exhibiting the kind of money-like qualities associated with appreciating currencies. As a currency appreciates, demand for it increases. This suggests that price is driving demand, not vice-versa, that the demand curve for gold is upward sloping — which is to say, the higher the price rises, the greater the demand for gold. Moreover, there is no evidence of a price point, no matter how high, where the demand for gold goes to zero.

To argue this another way: In the real world, economists argue that deflation reduces the willingness of individuals to part with their money for commodities. They hold onto it as they anticipate even lower prices in the future. It is clear that gold is behaving in this fashion — as its price increases — which is to say, as its purchasing power increases — people want to hold onto it, and hold more of it. A hypothesis which does not account for this money-like behavior is not a hypothesis at all.

However, even if there is no price point where the demand for gold goes to zero, this does not mean there is no price point where “flow” goes to zero. If gold does indeed exhibit money-like qualities with an upward sloping ‘demand curve’, this would imply gold can fall to some price below which it no longer circulates as money. We can return to this point later as well.

Krugman now turns to the core question of his post:

So what determines the price of gold at any given point in time? Hotelling models say that people are willing to hold onto an exhaustible resources because they are rewarded with a rising price.

At this point we should say something about this “Hotelling model”. Harold Hotelling developed an economic model to describe how cartels act to restrain the supply of a commodity in the market in order to maximize profit, that is, the return on their investment in the production of the commodity. The Wikipedia has this to say about Hotelling’s Rule regarding scarcity rent — excess profit derived by creating scarcity in the supply of a product:

Hotelling’s rule defines the net price path as a function of time while maximising economic rent in the time of fully extracting a non-renewable natural resource. The maximum rent is also known as Hotelling rent or scarcity rent and is the maximum rent that could be obtained while emptying the stock resource. In an efficient exploitation of a non-renewable and non-augmentable resource, the percentage change in net-price per unit of time should equal the discount rate in order to maximise the present value of the resource capital over the extraction period.

Simply stated, if I have a commodity that will eventually be exhausted, I will manage its production so that, over the lifetime of its production, the amount of money I can charge for it will be maximized. Think about, for instance, OPEC, who wants to be sure they produce no more oil each year than is demanded by the market when the price of oil is the highest and the amount demand is the greatest.

The problem with applying this rule to a stock of gold is that, as we saw above, gold exhibits the characteristic features of a money, not of an ordinary commodity. This will seem to be a non sequitur to Krugman’s core argument — until you realize the aim of maximizing rent on the production of a commodity is to maximize the quantity of money one receives in return for that commodity. Essentially, Krugman is arguing that owners of a lifeless hoard of gold sitting in a vault seek to maximize rent on that lifeless hoard of gold sitting in a vault.

Since the gold never moves from the vault, never enters into circulation, never exchanges with other commodities, and, thereby, become the form of the profits sought by producers of commodities, its role in its own price appreciation or depreciation must be completely passive — it is a mere victim of circumstance, a bystander to events. Whatever the change in the price of gold that occurs must be the result of other processes in the economy that impose themselves on the price of gold, causing this price to vary over time.

So, whatever is happening with the price of gold is not the result of any change in the behavior of the owners of the commodity, nor of any rent maximizing effort on their part. In fact, from what we have seen above, there is no reason to assume the owners of gold do anything with this gold except hold onto it. The entire point of having the gold is to hold it irrespective of any change in its price. While there may be some fluctuations of willingness to hold gold at the margins — of interest in supplies of newly produced gold — the great bulk of gold is likely no more traded than do people trade their savings in any other form. The question raised by this is obvious:

What determines the preference of individuals to hold their savings in the form of gold as opposed to some other form? But, we will leave this to the side as well for now.

Krugman next states:

Abstracting from storage costs, this says that the real price [of gold] must rise at a rate equal to the real rate of interest.

As with the “real price” of gold, I am at a loss at to what the “real rate of interest” refers. So, I went looking for a definition of the term on Wikipedia and found this:

“The nominal interest rate is the amount, in money terms, of interest payable.

For example, suppose a household deposits $100 with a bank for 1 year and they receive interest of $10. At the end of the year their balance is $110. In this case, the nominal interest rate is 10% per annum.

The real interest rate, which measures the purchasing power of interest receipts, is calculated by adjusting the nominal rate charged to take inflation into account. (See real vs. nominal in economics.)

If inflation in the economy has been 10% in the year, then the $110 in the account at the end of the year buys the same amount as the $100 did a year ago. The real interest rate, in this case, is zero.”

Krugman is arguing that the price of gold will rise or fall to reflect interest rates once inflation has been stripped out of the equation. If the real interest rate is positive, gold will tend to appreciate relative to currency. If the real interest rate is negative, gold will tend to depreciate relative to currency. If, at the end of a year $100 in your savings account has increased to $110, and inflation that year is zero, an ounce of gold will appreciate by a proportional amount — say, from $1400 to $1540.  If, at the end of a year $100 in your savings account has decreased to $90, and inflation that year is zero, an ounce of gold will depreciate by a proportional amount — say, from $1400 to $1260.

This latter example would likely cause some difficulties: you would go storming into your local bank branch to inquire why you were being charged an astonishing ten percent a year to keep your money in the bank. Once informed that the current interest rate charge by your bank was now -10% per year, you would promptly withdraw your funds — triggering what, in time, will grow into a run on the bank, as everyone withdraws their saving in the face of stiff new negative interest rates.

Why might this cause some difficulties? Between 1980 and 2001, the average annual price of gold fell on average by 5 percent per year; while, since 2001, the average annual price of gold has risen on average by 15 percent per year. The surprising result of Krugman’s argument is that, after accounting for inflation, real interest rates were negative for most of the 80s and 90s, but have been decidedly positive since then.

We will leave this for later examination as well.

Krugman concludes the recent jump in the price of gold is the result of the Federal Reserve Bank’s zero interest rate policy:

Now ask the question, what has changed recently that should affect this equilibrium path? And the answer is obvious: there has been a dramatic plunge in real interest rates, as investors have come to perceive that the Lesser Depression will depress returns on investment for a long time to come:

What effect should a lower real interest rate have on the Hotelling path? The answer is that it should get flatter: investors need less price appreciation to have an incentive to hold gold.

There are two things I question about this reasoning. First, the price of a troy ounce of gold has been increasing since 2001, when it hit bottom at an annual average price of $271. That means, for whatever reason having nothing to do with the Fed’s zero interest rate policy, investors have had an incentive to hold gold as its purchasing power, measured in dollars, has been rising for a decade now. Second, since in my argument, gold is playing only a passive role, the historical evidence suggests the Fed’s zero interest rate policy is being driven by the same forces that are also causing gold to appreciate in price and investors to hoard it.

Rather than driving events, the Fed’s zero interest rate policy is completely reactive. Simply stated, based on Krugman’s argument, the Fed’s zero interest rate policy is not sending capitals scurrying into gold and driving gold price higher, rather it is responding to whatever economic forces are doing this, and, driving real interest rates to an average 15% a year for the last decade — it is trying to drive real interest rates negative to reverse those forces, and to reverse the depressed return on investment.

We will show why this argument falls flat on its face as well

Says Krugman:

The logic, if you think about it, is pretty intuitive: with lower interest rates, it makes more sense to hoard gold now and push its actual use further into the future, which means higher prices in the short run and the near future.

The evidence is, in fact, the exact opposite: the behavior of gold indicates the Federal Reserve’s zero interest rate policy is a failure so far (along with all the fiscal stimulus and backdoor bailouts) since, despite the effort and unprecedented scale of the various policy actions, the price of gold indicates interest rates remain stubbornly high at levels not seen since the 1970s depression. And, moreover, still increasing.

Nevertheless his string of errors in reasoning, Krugman manages to end up, Mr. Magoo-like, at what is somewhat close to the right conclusion:

…this is essentially a “real” story about gold, in which the price has risen because expected returns on other investments have fallen; it is not, repeat not, a story about inflation expectations. Not only are surging gold prices not a sign of severe inflation just around the corner, they’re actually the result of a persistently depressed economy stuck in a liquidity trap — an economy that basically faces the threat of Japanese-style deflation, not Weimar-style inflation. So people who bought gold because they believed that inflation was around the corner were right for the wrong reasons.

Krugman is correct to state rising gold price is a sign of an economy in a depression, where returns on investment have fallen flat. He is also correct to state gold is not signalling future inflation. But, Krugman arrives the correct conclusion only by making a series of Mr. Magoo-like blunders that just manage to offset each other — blunders, which, when stripped out of his argument, allow a simpler explanation for the relation between gold and real interest rates.

In the next part of this series, I will show why Krugman’s model, although arriving at something close to the truth of the matter, is nevertheless wholly wrong.

A Critique of Pure Bullshit, Part Three: Eichengreen on Ron Paul (A Tale of Two Monies)

September 2, 2011 Leave a comment

I have been critiquing Barry Eichengreen’s unprincipled attack on Ron Paul and his demand for a return to the gold standard, but, so far, I have danced around the real question posed by this vicious hit piece. Eichengreen’s argument is not about whether or not Ron Paul’s ideas can be compared to the insanity of Glenn Beck, nor is it even about the criticism of the Fascist State proposed by the argument of Frederick Hayek, who plays in this venal attack only the role of betrayer — Ron Paul having based his argument on many of the insights of Hayek, is ultimately betrayed by him when the latter dismisses
the possibility of a return to the gold standard.

Hayek concedes, in other words, to the necessity of totalitarianism.

Ron Paul, having been deserted by Hayek, even before he begins his career as a politician, is left alone in the company of Glenn Beck, who (Beck) is trying to foist gold coin on you at an astounding markup. The implication of this being that if Ron Paul is not himself in cahoots with Glenn Beck, he is just another hopeless sucker to be played. Just another miser looking for a place to safely store up his accumulated wealth from the predations of the investment banksters.

All of this is nothing more than an attempt at misdirection, a ploy to distract you from asking the important question:

What is money?

Ask this question to Ron Paul, and he will tell you gold is money — honest money, not a fiction of money as is ex nihilo currency. When Ron Paul asked Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke if gold was money, the Chairman tried his damnedest to avoid giving a straight answer. The chairman knows that money can perform two useful functions: universal means of payment in an exchange, and store of value. Even if gold is not recognized as the official standard of prices in a country, it can still perform exceptional service as store of value. And, in this function, it entirely fulfills the definition of a money – moreover, it fulfills this function better than any other commodity. And, it certainly fulfills this function better than currency created out of thin air.

Yes. Gold is money. But, of course, that is not the question I am asking:

“What is money?”

Not what thing can serve as money, but what is money itself. No matter what serves as money, or the functions of money it fulfills; what is money itself, i.e., the functions to be filled by the things?

Simply stated: Gold is money, but money is not gold.

People always make this silly argument: “Why can’t dogs, or sea shells or emeralds be money?” Yes. Within limits, anything can serve as money; and, this fact makes the thing serving as money appear entirely accidental and arbitrarily established. So, for instance, whether gold or dancing electrons on a Federal Reserve terminal is money seems simply a matter of convenience and fit.

But, the real questions raised by this is why anything serves as money? That is, why money? This question appears to us entirely irrational. We take the existence of money for granted, and therefore, argue not about money itself, but the things to be used as money. Eichengreen wants us to believe the question, “What thing should serve as money?”, has no deeper significance but for a handful of scam artists and marks like Glenn Beck and Ron Paul. A fifty dollar gold coin (worth some $1900) is inconvenient for daily purchases; we should use dancing electrons on a Federal Reserve terminal.

But, why do we have to use anything at all when it comes time to fill up the SUV for a trip to the corner store? Why isn’t the gas free? In other words, what is money doing coming between us and the things we need?

“Because”, the economist Barry Eichengreen will tell us, “there is not enough of stuff to go around.” Well, how does Barry know this? Does he have some insight into how much of one or another thing is produced in relation to demand for that thing? No. He doesn’t. The function of money is to tell us which things are in shortfall relative to demand because those things have a price in the market place. Prices presuppose the existence of scarcity; of a relation to nature marked by insufficiency of means to satisfy human want. Money is not an attribute of a fully human society, but the attribute of a society still living under the oppressive demands of nature.

So, the question,

“What is money?”

really comes down to

“What is scarcity?”

And, this can now be answered: it is insufficient means to satisfy human needs. But, this answer is still insufficient, because we really have no way to know directly if scarcity exists, right? What we know is the things generally have a price, and we infer from this that things must be scarce. But, this too is a fallacy like “gold is money = money is gold”. I stated that prices presuppose scarcity — but I must now correct myself. Scarcity of means to satisfy human needs is necessarily expressed by prices, but prices do not of themselves necessarily express scarcity of means.

Catelization, monopoly pricing, false scarcity and the Fascist State

We know, for instance, near the turn of the 20th Century, certain big industries learned they could maintain artificially high prices on their products by creating entirely artificial scarcities. We know also how this expertise was put to use and the reaction of society to it. Or, at least, we think we do. Folks like Joseph Stromberg, Murray Rothbard, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy tell a much different story than the official record. That alternative narrative is summed up brilliantly by Kevin Carson in his work here.

Carson argues:

But merely private attempts at cartelization before the Progressive Era–namely the so-called “trusts”–were miserable failures, according to Kolko. The dominant trend at the turn of the century–despite the effects of tariffs, patents, railroad subsidies, and other existing forms of statism–was competition. The trust movement was an attempt to cartelize the economy through such voluntary and private means as mergers, acquisitions, and price collusion. But the over-leveraged and over-capitalized trusts were even less efficient than before, and steadily lost market share at the hands of their smaller, more efficient competitors. Standard Oil and U.S. Steel, immediately after their formation, began a process of eroding market share. In the face of this resounding failure, big business acted through the state to cartelize itself–hence, the Progressive regulatory agenda. “Ironically, contrary to the consensus of historians, it was not the existence of monopoly that caused the federal government to intervene in the economy, but the lack of it.”

In fact, these folks argue, cartelization and monopoly pricing wasn’t very successful until the state stepped in at the behest of industry to organize them. Carson again:

The Federal Trade Commission created a hospitable atmosphere for trade associations and their efforts to prevent price cutting. (18) The two pieces of legislation accomplished what the trusts had been unable to: it enabled a handful of firms in each industry to stabilize their market share and to maintain an oligopoly structure between them. This oligopoly pattern has remained stable ever since.

It was during the war [i.e. WWI] that effective, working oligopoly and price and market agreements became operational in the dominant sectors of the American economy. The rapid diffusion of power in the economy and relatively easy entry [i.e., the conditions the trust movement failed to suppress] virtually ceased. Despite the cessation of important new legislative enactments, the unity of business and the federal government continued throughout the 1920s and thereafter, using the foundations laid in the Progressive Era to stabilize and consolidate conditions within various industries. And, on the same progressive foundations and exploiting the experience with the war agencies, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt later formulated programs for saving American capitalism. The principle of utilizing the federal government to stabilize the economy, established in the context of modern industrialism during the Progressive Era, became the basis of political capitalism in its many later ramifications. (19)

But, there’s a problem with this cartel argument by Austrians, like Hayek and Mises, and Marxist-Keynesians, like Baran and Sweezy: Following Rudolf Hilferding, they describe prices realized by cartelization as “tribute exacted from the entire body of domestic consumers.”

The “monopoly capital” theorists introduced a major innovation over classical Marxism by treating monopoly profit as a surplus extracted from the consumer in the exchange process, rather than from the laborer in the production process. This innovation was anticipated by the Austro-Marxist Hilferding in his description of the super profits resulting from the tariff:

The productive tariff thus provides the cartel with an extra profit over and above that which results from the cartelization itself, and gives it the power to levy an indirect tax on the domestic population. This extra profit no longer originates in the surplus value produced by the workers employed in cartels; nor is it a deduction from the profit of the other non-cartelized industries. It is a tribute exacted from the entire body of domestic consumers. (64)

The problem with this theory is this: if we assume a closed system where the wages of the working class are the overwhelming source of purchasing power for the goods produced by industry, with prices of commodities more or less dependent on the consumption power of the mass of workers who produce them, these workers are unable to buy what they produce. The problem cited by Marx that the consumption power of society is an obstacle to the realization of surplus value is only intensified by cartelization.

Cartelization, even if it could be achieved in one or two industries, could not be the principle feature of any closed economy. Moreover, Marx’s theory predicts as productivity increased, and the body of workers needed to produce a given output shrank, this imbalance worsens. Even with the full weight of the state behind it, monopoly pricing would result in the severe limitation of the consumption power of society. This wholly artificial limitation on the consumption power of society would be expressed as a reduced demand for the output of industry and generally falling prices. So, in any case, the attempt to impose a general scarcity on society through cartelization alone must, in the end, fail miserably.

At this point it is entirely necessary to again ask the question:

“What is money?”

But, this time, not in the fashion we previously addressed it,

“Why is money coming between us and the things we need?”

We now can ask it in the form Barry Eichengreen wants us to consider it:

“What thing should serve as the money?”

As we just saw, cartelization must fail, even if it is sponsored by the state, owing to the artificial limits on the consumption of society. The limited means of consumption in the hands of the mass of workers must place definite limits on the demand for the output of industry.

But, what if — and this is only a silly hypothetical — another source of “demand” could be found within society? What if, out of nowhere, government should suddenly find itself in possession of a previously untapped endless supply of gold? What if, no matter how much of this supply of gold was actually spent, the gold coffers of the state remained full to the bursting point. Indeed, what if, for every bar of gold the state spent, 2 or 3 … or one thousand bars took the place of the spent gold?

In this case, the consumption power of society lost by cartelization and monopoly pricing could be made up for by judicious Fascist State spending, for instance on the military or building out an entire highway system or leveling the industiral competitors of entire continents in a global holocaust or pursuing a decades long Cold War/War on Terror/War on Democracy, to offset the limited demand of society. Since all gold bars look pretty much the same, no one need know that the state had a secret vault that produced gold as needed. No one need know that gold had lost its “price” as a commodity, because it was so incredibly abundant as to exceed all demand for it.

Which is to say, no one need know that in gold-money terms, all other commodities, including labor power, were essentially being given away for free.

The only people who would know this would be the men and women who managed the vault. And, since they were getting a cut of every bar spent into circulation, they could be relied on to keep this a tightly held secret.

So, again:

“What is money?”

Is it gold, a commodity in limited supply, and requiring a great deal of time and effort to produce? Or, is it the dancing electrons on a computer terminal in the basement of the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington, DC? Is it real gold, available in definite limited quantities? Or, is it “electronic gold”, available in infinite quantities? The first choice makes it impossible for state enforced monopoly pricing and cartelization; the second makes it entirely possible.

So far as I know, I am the only one making this argument — Marxist or non-Marxist. But, it is the entire point of Ron Paul’s campaign. It is what makes his campaign a potentially revolutionary moment in American society. Of far greater importance than he imagines, because, like any petty capitalist, he is only looking for a safe place to store his wealth. The radical potential of a demand for the return to the gold standard, even from the mouth of this petty capitalist, this classical liberal is a dagger aimed directly at the heart of the Fascist State, and of its globe-straddling empire.

A Critique of Pure Bullshit: Part Two: Eichengreen on Ron Paul (Money and Crisis)

August 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Austrian School economists Ludwig von Mises and his student Friedrich A. Hayek

Barry Eichengreen makes much of the role the theories of Friedrich Hayek play in Ron Paul’s world view for a reason that becomes immediately clear:

In his 2009 book, End the Fed, Paul describes how he discovered the work of Hayek back in the 1960s by reading The Road to Serfdom. First published in 1944, the book enjoyed a recrudescence last year after it was touted by Glenn Beck, briefly skyrocketing to number one on Amazon.com’s and Barnes and Noble’s best-seller lists. But as Beck, that notorious stickler for facts, would presumably admit, Paul found it first.

The Road to Serfdom warned, in the words of the libertarian economist Richard Ebeling, of “the danger of tyranny that inevitably results from government control of economic decision-making through central planning.” Hayek argued that governments were progressively abandoning the economic freedom without which personal and political liberty could not exist. As he saw it, state intervention in the economy more generally, by restricting individual freedom of action, is necessarily coercive. Hayek therefore called for limiting government to its essential functions and relying wherever possible on market competition, not just because this was more efficient, but because doing so maximized individual choice and human agency.

Yes, folks: Ron Paul is a follower of the very same theories recently endorsed by that cheap huckster of gold coin: right wing conspiracy theorist nut job, Glenn Beck.

Indeed, Ron Paul hails from that portion of the libertarian movement that is a reactive response to the growing role of the state in the economic activity of society. While Marxists predict this increasing state role — demanding only that state power must rest in the hands of the workers whose activity it is — libertarians of Paul’s type reject this role entirely and warn it can only have catastrophic implications for human freedom. Thus, these two streams of communist thought diverge less significantly in their respective diagnoses what was taking place in 20th Century than in their respective solution to it.

As Eichengreen points out, Ron Paul sees in the ever increasing interference by the state in economic activity a danger to individual freedom and a growing threat of totalitarian statist power, in which the state attempts to determine the individual and society rather than being determined by them. This has echoes among Marxists, who themselves had nothing but disdain for nationalization of industry, and by Marxist writers, like Raya Dunayevskaya, who, during the same period Hayek was developing his own ideas, observed an inherent tendency of the state to organize society as if it were a factory floor.

“At the same time the constant crises in production and the revolts engendered befuddle the minds of men who are OUTSIDE of the labor process… where surplus labor appears as surplus product and hence PLANLESSNESS. They thereupon contrast the ANARCHY of the market to the order in the factory. And they present themselves as the CONSCIOUS planners who can bring order also into ‘society,’ that is, the market.”

Paraphrasing Marx, Dunayevskaya points to the inherent logic of this process:

If the order of the factory were also in the market, you’d have complete totalitarianism.”

What Eichengreen wants to treat as an observation specific to the “loony right” turns out to be a view held in common by both the followers of Marx and the followers of the Austrian School. Moreover, it is not just the fringes of political thought who warned of growing convergence between the state and capital, the mainstream of political thought also recognized this inherent tendency, Eichengreen acknowledges, by citing President Richard Nixon’s famous quote, “we are all Keynesians now.” What emerges from this is a very different impression than the one Eichengreen wishes us to take away from his tawdry attempt to discredit Paul by noting his affinity with Glenn Beck for the writings of Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek and the Austrian School within bourgeois economics: As Engels predicted, the state was being driven by Capital’s own development to assume the role of social capitalist, managing the process of production and acting as the direct exploiter of labor power.

While mainstream bourgeois political-economy was treating the convergence of Capital and State power as a mere economic fact, the followers of Hayek and the best of the followers of Marx warn not merely of the effect this process would have on economic activity, but the effect it must have on the state itself — as social manager of the process of extraction of surplus value from the mass of society, the state must become increasingly indifferent to its will, must increasingly treat it as a collective commodity, as a mass of labor power, and, therefore, as nothing more than a collective source of surplus value.

Although lacking the tools of historical materialist analysis, that comes from familiarity with Marx’s own methods, libertarians, like Ron Paul, have actually been able to better understand the implications of increasing state control over economic life than Marxists, who, having abandoned Marx’s methods to adopt spurious theories propagated from whatever academic scribbler, still to this day have failed to completely understand the Fascist State.

*****

Eichengreen, worthless charlatan that he is, deftly sidesteps this critique shared by both Austrians and Marxists of the political impact of growing Fascist State control over the production of surplus value, and instead directs our attention to the entirely phony debate of whether gold as money serves society better than ex nihilo currency to abolish the crises inherent in the capitalist mode of production itself. He begins this foray by admitting the failure of of monetary policy to prevent the present crisis, but poses it as a non sequitur:

Why are Ron Paul’s ideas becoming more popular among voters?

The answer, as is Eichengreen’s standard practice in this bullshit hit piece, is to blame Ron Paul’s popularity on Glenn Beck:

BUT IF Representative Paul has been agitating for a return to gold for the better part of four decades, why have his arguments now begun to resonate more widely? One might point to new media—to the proliferation of cable-television channels, satellite-radio stations and websites that allow out-of-the-mainstream arguments to more easily find their audiences. It is tempting to blame the black-helicopter brigades who see conspiracies everywhere, but most especially in government. There are the forces of globalization, which lead older, less-skilled workers to feel left behind economically, fanning their anger with everyone in power, but with the educated elites in particular (not least onetime professors with seats on the Federal Reserve Board).

Only after we get this conspicuously offensive run of personal attacks on Ron Paul’s reputation, does Eichengreen actually admit: Ron Paul’s ideas are gaining in popularity, because the Fascist State is suffering a crisis produced by a decade of depression and financial calamity:

There may be something to all this, but there is also the financial crisis, the most serious to hit the United States in more than eight decades. Its very occurrence seemingly validated the arguments of those like Paul who had long insisted that the economic superstructure was, as a result of government interference and fiat money, inherently unstable. Chicken Little becomes an oracle on those rare occasions when the sky actually does fall.

Ah! But, even now, Eichengreen, forced to admit, finally, the present unpleasantness, cannot help but label Ron Paul a broken clock for having rightly predicted it in the first place. Okay, fine.

So, it turns out that the banksters really do extend credit beyond all possibility of it being repaid; and, it turns out that this over-extension of credit plays some role in overinvestment and the accumulation of debt, and, it turns out prices spiral to previously unimaginable heights during periods of boom — and, finally, it turns out all this comes crashing down around the ears of the capitalist, when, as at present, a contraction erupts suddenly, and without warning.

This schema bears more than a passing resemblance to the events of the last decade. Our recent financial crisis had multiple causes, to be sure—all financial crises do. But a principal cause was surely the strongly procyclical behavior of credit and the rapid growth of bank lending. The credit boom that spanned the first eight years of the twenty-first century was unprecedented in modern U.S. history. It was fueled by a Federal Reserve System that lowered interest rates virtually to zero in response to the collapse of the tech bubble and 9/11 and then found it difficult to normalize them quickly. The boom was further encouraged by the belief that there existed a “Greenspan-Bernanke put”—that the Fed would cut interest rates again if the financial markets encountered difficulties, as it had done not just in 2001 but also in 1998 and even before that, in 1987. (The Chinese as well may have played a role in underwriting the credit boom, but that’s another story.) That many of the projects thereby financed, notably in residential and commercial real estate, were less than sound became painfully evident with the crash.

All this is just as the Austrian School would have predicted. In this sense, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman went too far when he concluded, some years ago, that Austrian theories of the business cycle have as much relevance to the present day “as the phlogiston theory of fire.”

(I think it is rather cute to see Eichengreen present himself as the disinterested referee between the warring factions of bourgeois political-economy, by gently chiding Paul Krugman for going too far in his criticism of the Austrians — after all, the Fascist State will have to borrow heavily from the Austrian School to extricate itself from its present predicament)

Where people like Ron Paul go wrong, Eichengreen warns, is their belief that there is no solution to this crisis but to allow it to unfold to its likely unpalatable conclusion — unpalatable, of course, for the Fascist State, since such an event is its death-spiral as social capitalist. Apparently, without even realizing it, this pompous ass Eichengreen demonstrates the truth of Hayek’s argument:  Fascist State management of the economy, once undertaken, must, over time, require ever increasing efforts to control economic events, and, therefore, ever increasing totalitarian control over society itself.

Eichengreen pleads us to understand the Fascist State does not intervene into the economy on behalf of Capital (and itself as manager of the total social capital) but to protect widows and orphans from starvation and poverty:

Society, in its wisdom, has concluded that inflicting intense pain upon innocent bystanders through a long period of high unemployment is not the best way of discouraging irrational exuberance in financial markets. Nor is precipitating a depression the most expeditious way of cleansing bank and corporate balance sheets. Better is to stabilize the level of economic activity and encourage the strong expansion of the economy. This enables banks and firms to grow out from under their bad debts. In this way, the mistaken investments of the past eventually become inconsequential. While there may indeed be a problem of moral hazard, it is best left for the future, when it can be addressed by imposing more rigorous regulatory restraints on the banking and financial systems.

Thus, in order to protect widows and orphans from starvation, the Fascist State is compelled to prop up the profits and asset prices of failed banksters and encourage the export of productive capital to the less developed regions of the world market — not to mention, leave millions without jobs and millions more under threat of losing their jobs. Eichengreen even has the astonishing gall to state the problem of moral hazard identified by Austrians, “is best left for the future, when it can be addressed by imposing more rigorous regulatory restraints on the banking and financial systems.” Eichengreen takes us all for fools — did not Washington deregulate the banksters prior to this depression, precisely when the economy was still expanding? If banks are deregulated during periods of expansion, and they cannot be regulated during periods of depression, when might the time be optimal to address moral hazard?

The question, of course, is rhetorical — and not simply because Eichengreen is only blowing smoke in our face. Eichengreen actually argues that Fascist State intervention prevented a depression!:

…we have learned how to prevent a financial crisis from precipitating a depression through the use of monetary and fiscal stimuli. All the evidence, whether from the 1930s or recent years, suggests that when private demand temporarily evaporates, the government can replace it with public spending. When financial markets temporarily become illiquid, central-bank purchases of distressed assets can help to reliquefy them, allowing borrowing and lending to resume.

And, here we can see the role of the thing serving as money and its relation to the crises inherent in the capitalist mode of production. Ex nihilo currency does not abolish crises, it merely masks them from view: while ex nihilo dollar based measures of economic activity indicate the economy suffered a massive catastrophic financial crisis in 2008, gold indicates this financial crisis is only the latest expression of an even more catastrophic depression that has, so far, lasted more than a decade.

NEXT: The tale of two monies

Eichengreen on Ron Paul and Gold: Part One: A critique of pure bullshit:

August 29, 2011 2 comments

Washington has a problem, and Barry Eichengreen is doing his bit to save it. The problem’s name is Ron Paul, and this problem comes wrapped in 24 carat gold:

GOLD IS back, what with libertarians the country over looking to force the government out of the business of monetary-policy making. How? Well, by bringing back the gold standard of course.

Last week, Eichengreen published a slickly worded appeal to libertarian-leaning Tea Party voters, who, it appears, are growing increasingly enamored with Ron Paul’s argument against ex nihilo money and the bankster cartel through which Washington effects economic policy.

The pro-gold bandwagon has been present in force in Iowa, home of the first serious test of GOP candidates for that party’s presidential nomination. Supporters tried but failed to force taxpayers in Montana and Georgia to pay certain taxes in gold or silver. Utah even made gold and silver coins minted by Washington official tender in the state. But, the movement is not limited to just the US: several member states of the European Union have made not so quiet noises demanding real hard assets in return for more bailout funds for some distressed members burdened by debt and falling GDP.

No doubt, these developments are a growing concern in Washington precisely because demands for real assets like commodity money threaten to blow up its eighty year old control of domestic and global economic activity through the continuous creation of money out of thin air.

Although Eichengreen invokes the difficulty of paying for a fill up at your local gas station, “with a $50 American eagle coin worth some $1,500 at current market prices”; the real problem posed by a gold (or any commodity) standard for prices is that such a standard sounds a death-knell to a decades long free ride for the very wealthiest members of society, and would end the 40 years of steady erosion of wages for working people here, and in countries racked by inflation and severe austerity regimes around the world.

Make no mistake: Ron Paul is now one of the most dangerous politicians in the United States or anywhere else, because his message to end the Federal Reserve Bank and its control of monetary and employment policy has begun to approach the outer limits of a critical mass of support — if not to end the Fed outright, than at least to bring the issue front and center of American politics.

Eichengreen begins his attack on Ron Paul’s call for an end to the Federal Reserve by choosing, of all things, Ron Paul’s own writings as weapon against him:

Paul has been campaigning for returning to the gold standard longer than any of his rivals for the Republican nomination—in fact, since he first entered politics in the 1970s.

Paul is also a more eloquent advocate of the gold standard. His arguments are structured around the theories of Friedrich Hayek, the 1974 Nobel Laureate in economics identified with the Austrian School, and around those of Hayek’s teacher, Ludwig von Mises. In his 2009 book, End the Fed, Paul describes how he discovered the work of Hayek back in the 1960s by reading The Road to Serfdom.

For Eichengreen, Paul’s self-identification with Hayek is a godsend, because, as Eichengreen already knows at the outset of his article, Hayek ultimately opposed the gold standard as a solution to monetary crises:

At the end of The Denationalization of Money, Hayek concludes that the gold standard is no solution to the world’s monetary problems. There could be violent fluctuations in the price of gold were it to again become the principal means of payment and store of value, since the demand for it might change dramatically, whether owing to shifts in the state of confidence or general economic conditions. Alternatively, if the price of gold were fixed by law, as under gold standards past, its purchasing power (that is, the general price level) would fluctuate violently. And even if the quantity of money were fixed, the supply of credit by the banking system might still be strongly procyclical, subjecting the economy to destabilizing oscillations, as was not infrequently the case under the gold standard of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Eichengreen pulls off a clever misdirection against Ron Paul by deliberately conflating the problem of financial instability with the problem of limiting Fascist State control over economic activity. Ron Paul’s argument, of course, is not primarily directed at eliminating financial crises, which occur with some frequency no matter what serves as the standards of prices, but at removing from Washington’s control over economic activity not just at home, but wherever the dollar is accepted as means of payment in the world market — and, because the dollar is the world reserve currency, that means everywhere. But, by conflating the question of Fascist State control over the world economy with solving the problem of financial and industrial crises that are endemic to the capitalist mode of production, Eichengreen takes the opportunity to foist an even more unworkable scheme on unsuspecting Ron Paul supporters: privatize money itself:

For a solution to this instability, Hayek himself ultimately looked not to the gold standard but to the rise of private monies that might compete with the government’s own. Private issuers, he argued, would have an interest in keeping the purchasing power of their monies stable, for otherwise there would be no market for them. The central bank would then have no option but to do likewise, since private parties now had alternatives guaranteed to hold their value.

Abstract and idealistic, one might say. On the other hand, maybe the Tea Party should look for monetary salvation not to the gold standard but to private monies like Bitcoin.

It is cheek of monumental — epic — proportion. Even by the standards of the unscrupulous economics profession — a field of “scholarship” having no peer review and no accountability — the sniveling hucksterism of Eichengreen’s gambit is quite breathtaking. However, not to be overly impressed by this two-bit mattress-as-savings-account salesman, in the next section of this response to Barry Eichengreen, I want to spend a moment reviewing his examination of the problem of financial instability, and the alleged role of gold (commodity) money in “subjecting the economy to destabilizing oscillations… under the gold standard of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Part Two: Money and crises

Inflation, the negative rate of profit, and the Fascist State (Part seven)

May 5, 2011 Leave a comment

In part one of this series, I showed how inflation affects not only consumption but also production. In the former, inflation expresses itself in the fall of the consumption power of the mass of society. In the latter, inflation expresses itself as a fall in the actual realized rate of profit — a negative rate of profit arising not from a material change in the composition of capital, but from a depreciation in the purchasing power of money. The two of these effects are achieved by one and the same cause. The two effects do not simply exist side by side, but influence each other: in the circulation of capital, excess money-demand effectively reduces the portion of the output of productively employed capital that is realized in sales. With an inflation rate of ten percent, a capital with value of $100 now can be realized only if $110 is offered for it. On the other hand, a capital with the actual value of $110, is effectively purchased for $100.

The problem here is that between the production of the commodity and its realization in a sale the purchasing power of the money has depreciated. The problem can be better understood if we divide value and price and examine each separately. If we assume a capital with the value of $100, represents 10 hours of socially necessary labor time, we can make the following observation: The capitalist takes his capital with a value of $100 or ten hours of labor time and produces a quantity of commodities with a new total value of $110, representing 11 hours of socially necessary labor time. However, during this same period, the purchasing power of money has changed so that 1 hour of labor time no longer has a price of $10, but has a new price of $11. His capital now has the value of 11 hours of labor time with an implied expected price of $121 (11 times 11 = 121), yet he only realizes $110, or 10 hours of labor time under the new price conditions.

From the point of view of value, the capitalist has taken his capital with a value of 10 hours of socially necessary labor and produced a capital with a value of 11 hours of socially necessary labor. Yet, of this 11 hours of value he only realizes 10 hours, i.e., he realizes no more than his original investment. From the point of view of price, the capitalist has taken his capital with a money-price of $100 and produced a capital with a money-price of $110. He expects no more than $110 and is satisfied with this, despite the fact that this $110 in sales only has a value of 10 hours of socially necessary labor time.

The riddle of the divergence of prices from values

The riddle of this perverse situation can only be solved if we assume that a change occurred in the relationship between values and prices during the exchange of money and commodities — that the realization of the value of capital produced suffered from a defect such that a portion of the value this capital was lost in the act of exchange itself. This defect, as we showed in part three, is already inherent in the value/price mechanism itself. The value/price mechanism contains in itself a contradiction between the actual labor time expended on the production of a commodity and the socially necessary labor time required for its production; a contradiction between the value of the commodity itself and the expression of the value in the form of the price of the commodity; and, a contradiction between the price of the commodity denominated in units of the money and the socially necessary labor time required for the production of the object that serves as the money.

These contradictions exists only in latent form until crises bring them to the surface in a sudden divergence between prices and values of commodities. During periods of over-production of commodities — or, more accurately, over-accumulation of capital — these crises are expressed in the sudden collapse in the prices of commodities below their value, or socially necessary labor times. The divergence between prices and values of commodities only express the fact that for a more or less lengthy period of time wealth can no longer accumulate in its capitalistic form; and, as a result, the socially necessary labor time of society must contract to some point where the production of surplus value no longer takes place. Precisely because the circulation of capital requires not just the production of surplus value in the form of commodities, but also its realization in a separate act of sale of these commodities, the possibility exists for an interruption of the process of realization for a longer or shorter period of time until balance between production and consumption is restored — that is, until conditions exist for the total social capital to once again function as capital; for the process of self-expansion of the total social capital to resume.

If, for whatever reason, conditions are not established for the total social capital to resume functioning as capital — for the process of self-expansion of the total social capital to begin again — production itself must cease. The interruption of exchange — which, I note for the record, begins not with too much money-demand for too few commodities, but precisely the reverse — creates a sudden fall in the rate of profit to zero. If this occurs not as an intermittent breakdown, but as a permanent feature of capitalist production — which is to say, if the over-accumulation of capital is not momentary, but a now permanent feature of the mode of production — capital has encountered its absolute limit as a mode of production. From this point forward the production of wealth can no longer take its capitalistic form — can no longer take the form of surplus value and of profit.

Over-accumulation of capital and civil society

Moreover, since the production of surplus value is the absolute condition for the purchase and sale of labor power, the sudden interruption of its production affects not just the capitalist class, but the class of laborers as well — it appears in the form of a social catastrophe threatening the existence of the whole of existing society, and all the classes composing existing society without regard to their respective place in the social division of labor. Each member of society encounters the exact same circumstance: she cannot sell her commodity, whether this commodity is an ordinary one — shoes, groceries, etc. — or the quintessential capitalist commodity, labor power. The premise of all productive activity in society is that this activity can only be undertaken if it yields a profit; if, in other words, the existing socially necessary labor time expended by society realizes, in addition to this value, additional socially necessary labor time above that consumed during its production.

Marx argues in Capital Volume 3 that capitalist production presupposes a tendency toward the absolute development of the productive forces of society, irrespective of the consequences implied by this development for capital itself. What does Marx mean by this? As a mode of production, capital shares with all previous modes of production the feature of being founded on natural scarcity, on the insufficiency of means to satisfy human need. Yet, at the same time, it implies a tendency for the productive capacity of society to develop more rapidly than consumption power of society — a tendency for more commodities to be thrown on the market at any given time than society can consume under the given conditions of exchange. What society can consume at any given moment is not determined simply by the amount of commodities available to be consumed, but by class conflict between the mass of owners of capital and the mass of laborers; a conflict which presupposes the reduction of the consumption power of the mass of laborers to some definite limit consistent with the realization of profits.

That this conflict, absent a successful attempt on the part of the mass of society to end the monopoly over the means of production by an insignificant handful of predators, must be settled in favor of capital and, therefore, that production is constantly kneecapped by  completely artificial limits on consumption, is already given by capitalist relations of production themselves — relations which nowhere figure in the description of capital by simple-minded economists, who instead ascribe this barrier to the gold standard, etc.

This contradiction — that the productive power of society tends toward its absolute development, yet the consumption power is constantly constrained by the need to produce commodities at a profit — implies that at a certain point in capital’s development production and consumption come into absolute conflict — a conflict which, on the one hand, cannot be resolved by simply increasing this productive power still further, nor by limiting consumption still more severely. It can only be overcome by such means as overthrow capitalist relations entirely, or, alternately, destroy both the productive and consumption power of society together in one and the same act of exchange.

Exchange and disaccumulation, or, the destruction of value through exchange

I have made the assumption that both the productive power of society and the consumption power of society are destroyed by one and the same act of exchange. Based on this assertion, I define inflation not simply as the increase in money-demand over the supply of commodities, but the actual destruction of the productive power of society and consumption power of society during the act of exchange. Or, what is the same thing, by the progressive reduction of the total social capital circulating within society, i.e., the reduction of the quantity of the existing total social capital which continues to function as capital within society, through exchange.

I have also made the assumption that this same act of exchange also expresses,

  1. the contradiction between the actual labor time expended on production of commodities and the socially necessary labor time required for production of these commodities — inflation, therefore, expresses itself as a declining portion of the total labor time expended by society that is socially necessary, or, alternately, the constant increase in the total labor time of society in relation to the social necessity for productively expended labor time;
  2. the contradiction between values of commodities and the expression of these values in the prices of commodities — inflation, therefore, is expressed as a decline in the value of commodities as a proportion of the prices of commodities, or, alternately, the constant increase in the prices of commodities in relation to their values; and,
  3. the contradiction between the prices of commodities denominated in units of the legally defined money and the price of the commodity that historically served as the money — inflation, therefore, is expressed in the constant depreciation of the exchange ratio of the money token against the commodity historically serving as the standard of price, or, alternately, as the rising price of the commodity historically serving as the standard of prices denominated in the money token, i.e., a secular rise in the price of gold.*

The conditions of this act of exchange, which destroys both the productive power of society and its consumption power — and which, on this basis, progressively reduces the quantity of the existing total social capital which continues to circulates as capital and function as capital on this basis — is fulfilled only by exchange of that portion of the newly created social capital representing surplus value with ex nihilo money, and the unproductive consumption of this newly created value by the Fascist State. Moreover, this unproductive consumption of the newly created surplus value is only fulfilled if it is entirely unproductive in all of its forms, i.e., whether this unproductive consumption takes the form of the unproductive consumption of commodities, of labor power, or, of the fixed and circulating capital.

Fascist State expenditures consist entirely of removing the surplus product of labor from circulation, consuming it unproductively, and replacing this surplus product in circulation with a valueless ex nihilo money that formally completes the act of exchange, but that in reality abrogates it. The total mass of capital circulating within society is thereby reduced by this exchange, while the total money-demand in society is simultaneously increased.

The chief symptoms of inflation, therefore, is (1.) the unproductive consumption of the existing total capital by the Fascist State, no matter what form this unproductive consumption takes; (2.) the constant secular increase in Fascist State expenditures, no matter how these expenditures are financed, but which is no more than the continuous exchange of every form of commodity (i.e., of capital in the form of commodities) for newly created valueless ex nihilo money; and, finally, (3.) the constant expansion of the total labor time of society beyond that duration required by the satisfaction of human needs. In tandem with the improvement in the productivity of labor, society is compelled to expend an ever greater amount of effort just to feed, house and clothe itself. In tandem with the reduction in the value of commodities, the prices of commodities soar still higher. In tandem with relentless expansion of Fascist State expenditures, the actual provision of necessary public services — education, health care, provision for the disabled and those no longer able to work, public infrastructure and communications — sink into decay and obsolescence.

The terminal trajectory of capitalist social relations is expressed precisely in the fact that at a certain stage of development the total social capital can no longer function as capital, can no longer realize the constantly increasing quantity of surplus value produced in the form of profits, that, to the contrary, this surplus value must be unproductively consumed in its entirety by the Fascist State and replaced by purely fictitious profits denominated in a purely fictitious money.

*****

*NOTE: I need clarify from Part Three that this third contradiction implies gold tends to exchange with other commodities at some exchange ratio below its relative value, despite its rising nominal price. As is obvious, if commodities are priced above their values, the purchasing power of gold — the physical body of exchange value — is exchanged below its value. This situation, which once occurred only during periods of general capitalist expansion, is now a permanent feature of exchange. It is, however, expressed through the intermediary of the money token by commodities being priced above their values, while gold is priced below its value. An existing quantity of money token can buy fewer commodities, but more gold, than otherwise expected. This inevitably leads to charges by gold-bugs that the price of gold is being deliberately suppressed, but I think it is actually a natural consequence of over-accumulation of capital — a condition normally seen at the apex of an expansion. Commodities in general are devalued, but this devaluation is expressed most thoroughly in the devaluation of the former money commodity which serves little other function in society but to express value.

Inflation, the negative rate of profit, and the Fascist State (Part six)

April 26, 2011 Leave a comment

I need to digress for a moment to set everything I have discussed so far regarding inflation in the context of the world market. As will become clear, it is difficult, if not impossible to discuss inflation without taking into account the relation between the two. Inflation, as I have argued, can be understood as the chronic secular rise of prices for commodities, yet, it can also be understood as the chronic fall in the general level of consumption in an economy over a period of time. These two expressions of inflation do not simply exist as poles of a definition of inflation, but first and foremost as poles of the actually existing relation of production within the world market — a chronic, secular rise in prices of commodities on the one hand, and a chronic fall in the general level of consumption — of wages — on the other.

Inflation and the faux political battle over Austerity

One way to begin this is to look at the current faux political struggle unfolding in Washington over deficit spending by the Fascist State, since this faux struggle touches on one of the most glaring expressions of the imbalances within the world market. So, let’s examine the argument of the advocates of Austerity from the standpoint of Marx’s labor theory of value:

According to these sober persons, the United States must pay its debts. Since it must pay its debts — for instance, the US owes China $3 trillion — it must contain spending to a level consistent with this goal. Of course, the statement that the United States owes China $3 trillion is a non-sequitur in relation to domestic spending and taxes, since the US doesn’t pay China with revenues raised through taxes. It creates the money out of nothing. If China is concerned about getting its money, a faceless bureaucrat at the Treasury simply goes to a computer terminal and enters a 3 followed by 12 zeroes into an account designated by China. Now the PRC has its $3 trillion and we need not talk about Austerity. They get what we promised them: $3 trillion, and nothing more.

As the economist advocates of Modern Monetary Theory argue, this process is no different than what occurs when you withdraw cash from your savings account at the bank or transfer cash from your savings account to your checking account. US treasuries are simply China’s own savings account.

Now, what does China do with the $3 trillion? They have absolutely no domestic use for it, since the yuan serves as the domestic currency, not dollars. The PRC could use the money to import wage commodities to raise the material standard. But if they had any intention of doing this, the $3 trillion would not have been loaned to the United States in the first place. The PRC could also use the money to import capital commodities to increase the rate of domestic economic growth. However, even if they used the money this way. it would only result in more exports and even greater trade surpluses denominated in dollars. We have to assume that China has absolutely no use for the dollars — that the dollars are excess capital, which, since the PRC has no use for it, ends up being lent to the United States. And, since the United States can create as many dollars as they want, they have no use for it either.

The $3 trillion is valueless. And, if it is valueless, this implies all the crap they sold us is valueless as well. China sold us all this crap knowing we were giving them valueless dollars in return. We must assume they exchanged these commodities for American ex nihilo dollars because it couldn’t be sold otherwise. Since the crap was valueless unless they sold it to us for equally valueless dollars, the terms of the trade were met. Crap for crap; superfluous commodities, which, therefore, are not commodities at all, since they have no value, exchanged for a quantity of ex nihilo money that also has no value.

But, by the same token, the savings from austerity sought by the Austerians to repay China must also be valueless, since it consists entirely of these same ex nihilo dollars. Which implies that current expenditures by the Fascist State are also valueless, since the money spent domestically is the same as that to be paid to China. The money isn’t valueless because we owe it to China, it was valueless already — just as China’s crap is valueless unless it is sold. Whether it is used to repay China or spent on National Health Care, the money is completely valueless. Which means, not only is all that crap in China valueless, national health care is valueless as well. You cannot buy something with nothing unless that something is also nothing, i.e., has the same value as your means of purchasing it.

On the other hand, health care is definitely something, but so are socks made in China and sold at WalMart. By saying a thing exchanged for nothing must be nothing as well clearly has nothing to do with whether it is useful or necessary. The socks are useful, and so is an annual checkup. But, when exchanged for valueless dollars, they must also be valueless. It is not a question of whether these valueless dollars will go to pay China or to pay for health care.

The real question is why all of these useful goods continue to circulate in the form of commodities despite the valuelessness of the money? If we removed the valueless money from the equation entirely and allowed the goods to move as society demanded, nothing will have changed. Which is to say, if the goods were free, from the standpoint of value, nothing has changed. The fact that money serves as an intermediary in exchange here has no impact on the value of the things. Rather money is announcing, “These things for which I am exchanged have no value themselves. They, like me, are valueless in an economic sense, and, therefore, are no longer actually commodities.”

The absurdity of ex nihilo money

The absurdity is apparent: Money in this case only expresses that, from the standpoint of the law of value, there is no need for money. But this monetary expression takes the form of a valueless money. The sheer stupidity that money expresses its own superfluousness is already given in ex nihilo money. At the same time, this absurdity can only arise because, as a practical matter, the superfluousness of money appears absurd itself. Or, what is the same thing, a society founded on exchange of commodities has nevertheless come to be dominated by directly social production. This directly social production, for which exchange of commodities is entirely absurd, must nonetheless appear in the form of exchange – fictitious exchange. To accomplish this fictitious exchange requires a money form that is itself fictitious — ex nihilo money.

Although the exchanges taking place are fictitious, and use a currency that is entirely fictitious, the need for these fictions are real. The premise of all these fictions is that completely social conditions of production are nevertheless split up among the members of society. On the one hand, this division presupposes exchange of commodities, yet, on the other hand, this commodity exchange is entirely superfluous to the production of these commodities. The conflict between the conditions governing exchange and those governing production must be resolved; and they are, by fictions. But this “resolution” of the conflict between the conditions of exchange and the conditions of production can only intensify the antagonism between the two, and develop it to its most extreme limit.

Every nation attempts to resolve the conflict between the conditions of production and the conditions of exchange by issuing its own ex nihilo money. However, the limit of any nation to issue ex nihilo money rests on its ability to export more than it imports. According to Paul Krugman (2010) a nation can issue ex nihilo money only if it can run an export surplus and accepts a depreciation of its money. Moreover, in a flexible exchange rate system the export surplus becomes possible because issuing the ex nihilo money itself creates a tendency toward this depreciation of its currency. Thus, in a flexible exchange rate system, creating money ex nihilo produces a tendency toward export surpluses by depreciating the purchasing power of the ex nihilo money. The creation of fictitious money depresses the ability of the community to consume what it produces; it reduces the ratio of domestic consumption to domestic production — increased export is realized through the relative impoverishment of the community.

Since, in Krugman’s 2010 model every nation seeks a trade surplus by impoverishing itself — i.e., by reducing the portion of domestic production that is consumed domestically — who is consuming all of this now excess crap? Krugman’s 2010 model implies either the existence of a designated importer nation, or, the planet ends up with massive quantities of unsold excess commodities. What role does this designated importer play? If every other nation is running a trade surplus, the designated importer must run a trade deficit equal to the total surplus commodities produced by all the other nations. i.e., equal to the sum of excess capital in the form of excess commodities.

If the designated importer nation is running a chronic and growing export deficit, how does it pay for these imports? This designated importer has a fictitious currency every other nation must accumulate as payment for its exports. By law, only the State can create ex nihilo money. The responsibility of creating sufficient quantities of fictional money falls to it. The creation of ex nihilo money, however, is nothing more than the creation of fictitious profits — to the penny. If this creation is accomplished by issuing public debt, this public debt amounts to the fictional profits of private capitals. By increasing the public debt the owner of the world reserve currency can print money and buy all the crap. On the other hand, there is a tendency for the excess capital of the world market to be denominated in the world reserve currency.

However, since we are dealing with an actual material conflict between the conditions of production and the conditions of exchange under condition of absolute over-accumulation of capital, this conflict doesn’t disappear. It now appears as poles of international trade in the form of many net exporters on one side, who are accumulating fictitious dollar assets, and a net importer on the other side, who is accumulating a growing public debt; thus, the excess capital of the world market is increasingly denominated in the world reserve currency. This division of the world market into many net exporters and a single net importer has consequences for ex nihilo money creation itself: The capacity to grow export surpluses by creating ex nihilo money does indeed increase, but this increased capacity is only true for the designated importer nation. The export surplus nations actually end up with less capacity to create ex nihilo money, even as the designated importer nation gains in this capacity. Eventually, the export surplus nations must absolutely constrict their respective money supplies to contain inflation — producing, as a consequence, a growing surplus population of starving laborers. Although this conclusion is obvious, Krugman has not a hint of it in his 2010 paper.

Ex nihilo money, labor time, and the World Market

The problem is that directly social production abolishes the law of value, while exchange takes place only on the basis of this law. Under the capitalist mode of production, production is only undertaken with the eye to profit, i.e., to realization of surplus value. Yet, under conditions of absolute over-accumulation of capital, no additional surplus value can be realized, i.e., the profit rate is zero, if not negative. If the fiction of profits could not be maintained, production would cease entirely. To maintain this fiction, you need fictitious money.

To put this another way, under conditions of over-accumulation, directly social production limits the total labor time of the community to socially necessary labor time. And, what is the measure of this socially necessary labor time? Here is the somewhat surprising answer:

Socially Necessary Labor Time = Value = Wages.

Under conditions of over-accumulation of capital, the absolute limit of total socially necessary labor time is the value of the wages of the working class. Any value created in addition to this necessary limit — i.e., surplus value — cannot be realized as profit — it is wasted (or, superfluous) labor time. Profits realized under this regime must, by definition, be fictitious; hence the fiction of ex nihilo money.

If the production of surplus value no longer takes place, profit can be “realized” through exchange only on condition there is a continuous and pervasive unequal exchange of values within the world market. If labor power cannot be exploited to create surplus value, it must be constantly and artificially devalued — that is, purchased at a price below its actual value. This artificial (purely monetary) devaluation of labor power is a natural consequence of Fascist State ex nihilo money expenditures. This purely monetary devaluation of labor power goes hand in hand with a purely monetary devaluation of the fixed and circulating constant capital.

However, although labor power and the fixed and circulating constant capital are artificially devalued, this does not, by any means, imply a fall in the prices of these commodities — rather the situation is precisely the reverse. Under the conditions I am describing, the purely monetary devaluation is expressed inversely as rising ex nihilo prices for these commodities. They become dearer in ex nihilo money terms as their prices are held well over their actual values; in turn, society is compelled by generally rising prices denominated in the world reserve currency to consume fewer of these commodities.

However, it should not be understood by this that generally rising prices cause declining consumption of commodities; nor, does this imply that either or both result from the huge quantities of ex nihilo money created by the state. Rather, each of these is called forth by the growing conflict between the conditions of production and the conditions of exchange under circumstance of chronic or absolute over-accumulation of capital. Over-accumulation of capital means precisely over-accumulation of commodities — of fixed and circulating constant capital, and, of variable capital, i.e., labor power. Moreover, we have to assume that this over-accumulation of capital exists not simply in one or a few nations, but universally throughout the world market. Hence, export of capital no longer serves to resolve the contradictions inherent to capital.

Those who are following my reasoning so far immediately recognize the logical contradiction in the above paragraphs: I have made the absurd assumption that commodities sell at prices below their values and, simultaneously, above their values. On the surface, it would appear that these two paradoxical assumptions could not exist, or, if they did exist, would bring social production to a halt entirely. As a practical matter, however, these two assumptions, although occurring side by side during the circulation of commodities, nevertheless only occur serially in any given example and in two different directions: the capitalist purchases labor power where the average wage is priced below its value, and sells wage commodities where prices of these commodities are above their values. Which is to say, the world reserve currency, despite massive ex nihilo creation that should force its exchange rate against other currencies down precipitously, actually exchanges against these other currencies at a higher rate than would otherwise be expected — it enjoys what economists refer to as an “exorbitant privilege”.

As a result, there is a tendency for production to move toward the least developed regions of the world market, where labor power can be purchased for a fraction of its value, while the resultant output is sold in the most developed consumer markets. Capital denominated in the world reserve currency, since this currency can be exchanged for any local currency, can simultaneously purchase labor power in those places where wages are below their values, and sell the produced commodities in those places where prices are above their values. Productive employment of capital in the home market of the world reserve currency holder grows increasingly unprofitable and commodities produced there suffer from uncompetitive world market prices. Capital, therefore, takes flight to the less developed regions of the world market. This event is accompanied by loud public pronouncements by politicians and the business community on the liberating effects of free trade; and by angry denunciations on the part of those capitals who, because of their size or circumstances, cannot shift their capital to take advantage of this process and are driven to ruin or speculation.

This has implications for the development of the world market, which, rather than slowing because of the general over-accumulation of capital within the world market, now increases at an astonishing rate and geometrically: Capital denominated in the world reserve currency can not only take advantage of the price disequilibrium between labor power and wage goods, it can further exploit the “exorbitant privilege” of the world reserve currency. This must accelerate the export of capital to less developed regions of the world market to take advantage of extremely favorable terms on which labor power can be exploited in the local currency, and, simultaneously, lead to the expansion of the portion of the total social capital denominated in dollars at the expense of the portion denominated in other currencies.

The problem I spoke of in an earlier post in this series — that wages are too high, and yet too low — resolves itself naturally into accelerated export of productively employed capital to those places where labor power can be had for a fraction of its value, to produce goods destined for markets where commodities are priced many times their actual value. This arbitrage, which can only continue so long as new sources of ever cheaper labor power can be found, must be expressed in a growing volume of Fascist State ex nihilo money creation, which, moreover, must not simply increase, but increase geometrically.

Inflation, the negative rate of profit, and the Fascist State (Part five)

April 17, 2011 2 comments

According to the Wikipedia entry on Executive Order 6102, the fine for hoarding gold was ten thousand dollars. At the same time, the executive order demanded all private holdings be turned in and exchanged for government issued ex nihilo dollars at an exchange rate of $20.67 per troy ounce of gold. Using this as our base measure, the fine for hoarding gold amounted to 483.79 troy ounces of gold.

So, like the authors of the Wikipedia entry I tried to update the purchasing power of the 1933 ten thousand dollar fine into an amount of money equal to it in 2011 dollars. I went to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index website and found that according to its statistical measure of inflation it now takes $171,897.69 to purchase the same quantity of goods that the ten thousand dollar fine would have purchased in 1933. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the purchasing power of the ten thousand dollar fine has fallen to just 5.82 percent of its purchasing power in 1933. This is a fantastic depreciation in the purchasing power of dollars. However, it is also a gross lie — the depreciation of dollars has been far more severe than even the BLS admits, as we will now show.

The Problem of the Consumer Price Index

The Consumer Price index has been the subject of continuing controversy, including charges that it overestimates inflation and charges that it underestimates inflation. But, this controversy does not concern us here, since it is, in part at least, a political disagreement. What does concern us is the index itself, which popularly purports to measure the depreciating purchasing power of money in relation not to a fixed standard, but against a multitude of standards — that is, against a so-called basket of consumer goods.

Upon deeper investigation, however, I found, according to the entry in the Wikipedia on the United States Consumer Price Index, that the CPI was never meant to measure inflation or the depreciating purchasing power of money:

The U.S. Consumer Price Index (CPI) is a time series measure of the price level of consumer goods and services. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which started the statistic in 1919, publishes the CPI on a monthly basis. The CPI is calculated by observing price changes among a wide array of products in urban areas and weighing these price changes by the share of income consumers spend purchasing them. The resulting statistic, measured as of the end of the month for which it is published, serves as one of the most popular measures of United States inflation; however, the CPI focuses on approximating a cost-of-living index not a general price index.

Intrigued by this disclaimer, I went searching for the difference between a measure of inflation and a measure of the “cost of living”. Among the information I found was an admission by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the Consumer Price Index not only does not measure inflation, but it is not even a true measure of the cost of living. It is limited to measuring market purchases by consumers of a basket of goods and services.

According to Wikipedia, the BLS states:

The CPI frequently is called a cost-of-living index, but it differs in important ways from a complete cost-of-living measure. BLS has for some time used a cost-of-living framework in making practical decisions about questions that arise in constructing the CPI. A cost-of-living index is a conceptual measurement goal, however, not a straightforward alternative to the CPI. A cost-of-living index would measure changes over time in the amount that consumers need to spend to reach a certain utility level or standard of living. Both the CPI and a cost-of-living index would reflect changes in the prices of goods and services, such as food and clothing that are directly purchased in the marketplace; but a complete cost-of-living index would go beyond this to also take into account changes in other governmental or environmental factors that affect consumers’ well-being. It is very difficult to determine the proper treatment of public goods, such as safety and education, and other broad concerns, such as health, water quality, and crime that would constitute a complete cost-of-living framework.

Since, the BLS, by its own admission, incompletely measures the amount you must spend to achieve a presumed certain level of “utility” — the so-called Standard of Living — how do they define this “utility”? Further reading explains:

Utility is not directly measurable, so the true cost of living index only serves as a theoretical ideal, not a practical price index formula.

So, to sum up: the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index is a measure of a theoretical construct which cannot be defined, is difficult to determine, and, in any case, is not directly measurable: the so-called “Standard of Living“.

The hidden costs borne by society

If we go back to the first paragraph of the original definition of inflation proposed the the Wikipedia entry, we find this:

In economics, inflation is a rise in the general level of prices of goods and services in an economy over a period of time. When the general price level rises, each unit of currency buys fewer goods and services. Consequently, inflation also reflects an erosion in the purchasing power of money – a loss of real value in the internal medium of exchange and unit of account in the economy.[my emphasis] A chief measure of price inflation is the inflation rate, the annualized percentage change in a general price index (normally the Consumer Price Index) over time.

Inflation is defined as the general rise in prices of goods and services, but also as the erosion of the purchasing power of money — i.e., the depreciation of money. Against what is this erosion of purchasing power to be measured? Here, the Wikipedia is silent, leaving us with the wrong idea that the “real value” of money is to be measured against the commodities we can purchase with it. As this “real value” erodes, we can purchase fewer goods and services. This implied method of measuring the depreciation of money, however, does not give us a general measure of the price level, as the BLS admits, but only a measure of the price level as expressed in a series of transactions in the market for so many individual commodities.

The war in Afghanistan, for instance, would not be captured by this implied method; nor, would the cost incurred by society as a result of  the damage British Petroleum caused to the Gulf of Mexico; nor, the cost borne by society for the Fukushima nuclear disaster, or that created by the bailout of the failed banksters on Wall Street. Unless these costs actually entered into the prices of commodities in market transactions, they will not show up in the Consumer Price Index. And, a considerable  period of time could pass between the events and their expression in the prices of commodities tracked by the Consumer Price Index. Moreover, the change in prices of the commodities tracked by the Consumer Prices Index are subject to innumerable factors arising from market forces within the World Market — making it impossible to trace any specific fluctuation back to its source. On the other hand, each of the events of the sort cited above materially affected either the necessary labor time of society or the quantity of ex nihilo money in circulation within the economy.

The question to which we seek an answer is not how much the purchasing power of ex nihilo money has depreciated with respect to some arbitrarily established concept of living ltandard, but how much it has diverged from the purchasing power of gold standard money? To answer this question, we must directly measure these changes by comparing the general prices level against the commodity that served as the standard for prices until money was debased and replaced with ex nihilo dollars.

Gold standard dollars more or less held prices to the necessary social labor time required for the production of commodities; the divergence between gold and dollars since the dollar was debased, provides us with an unambiguous picture of inflation since 1933.  The divergence between the former gold standard money and ex nihilo money must be expressed as the depreciation of ex nihilo money purchasing power for an ounce of gold over time , or, what is the same thing, as the inverse of the price of gold over a period of time — as is shown in the chart below for the years 1920 to 2010.

Inflation since 1933 has been four times higher than BLS figures show

So, how does all of this relate back to the fine imposed on anyone found guilty of hoarding gold under Executive Order 6120? Remember, in 1933 the ten thousand dollar fine could have been exchanged for 483.79 ounces of gold. According to the BLS Consumer Price Index this translates into $171,897.69 in current dollars. However, 483.79 troy ounces of gold actually commands the far greater sum of $714,441.22, or 4 times as many dollars as the BLS Consumer Price Index states.

To put this another way, the Consumer Price Index is a complete fabrication by government to deliberately understate the actual depreciation of dollar purchasing power. The cumulative results of decades of false inflation statistics can be seen by simply comparing CPI statistics to the actual depreciation of dollar purchasing power against its former standard, gold. The extent of this fabrication can be seen in the chart below:

Moreover, for 2010, the annual average price inflation rate was a quite staggering 26%, when measured against the value of gold, not the paltry 1.6% alleged by the BLS.

If you didn’t receive a 26 percent increase in your wages or salary in 2010, you experienced a 26% loss in purchasing power — your consumption power was systematically destroyed by Washington money printing.

Using gold as the standard against which the depreciation of ex nihilo money is measured demonstrates how the Fascist State deliberately manipulates statistics for its own purposes to hide from the public the extent to which it manipulates exchange, and, therefore, the extent to which this manipulation has resulted in greatly increased prices for commodities.

But, gold does not only allow us to actually visualize the extent of this manipulation, as we shall show in the next post, gold also can demonstrate how this manipulation results in the needless extension of social working time beyond its necessary limit. That the Fascist State relentlessly extends working time beyond this limit, or, more importantly, that operates to maintain an environment of scarcity within society, which is the absolute precondition for Capital’s continuation.

To be continued